We’ve all done it. There you are, telling your friends one of your favourite anecdotes and somewhere along the way the story changes. We conveniently forget some bits that might make us look a bit foolish, while talking up the parts where we seem more interesting/funny/unusual. And that’s all fine when you are sitting around a table in a social situation, having fun. It makes for a great evening and, after all, everyone instinctively knows that there is often an element of exaggeration in any storytelling. These embellishments are not done in a malicious or deliberately misleading way.
But, what then if you wanted to print your enhanced version of an anecdote in a book? Or, indeed, relate a whole series of embellishments which may show you in a good light, but which might not show others up so favourably?
From a ghostwriting point of view, the issue of truth is a pretty big deal. While we completely understand that every one of us has a tendency to conveniently forget some events, while talking up others, and that most of the time it doesn’t cause any offence, there can be serious repercussions if a false story gets onto the printed page. A book could well infringe libel laws if certain facts are blatantly wrong, and that is something neither the ghost nor the author wants.
By definition, libel is an untrue statement about a person, published in writing or through broadcast media. Whoever writes and publishes a defamatory statement is held liable, which means a ghost is just as much in the frame as the author themselves if something untrue finds its way into the manuscript. This can occasionally make things challenging for the ghostwriter. We are, to a great extent, in our authors’ hands. They tell us their stories and we record them in the most compelling and readable way. Although we endeavour to check and re-check every fact, that is not always possible.
Say an author describes a controversial conversation they’ve had with one other party. No one else was in the room, but the material discussed was pretty explosive stuff. The author may swear blind they said this or that and the other person answered in a particular way. As the ghost was not in the room, facts like this are almost impossible to check. On the one hand, the ghost won’t want to be liable for a lawsuit. On the other, if the conversation is central to the theme of the book and sheds some important light on the main narrative, they may be keen to see it included.
When it comes to potentially contentious elements of the narrative, the onus on both parties is to closely stick to the story and to be very, very cautious in this sort of ‘he says, she says’ scenario. The absolute rule here is: if it is not possible for the ghostwriter to stand up the truth of a story that falls into this category, then they should leave it out. A good test of this is to imagine an anecdote being printed on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers. If that sounds like a recipe for a writ, then the ghost should leave the offending material on the cutting room floor. As a ghost, you have to get that right, or you’d be out of a job. It’s a hard line to walk, but it is the right one.
I might also add that ghosts are under an obligation not to go off at a tangent themselves with potentially contentious stories by inserting creative detail that might get them and the author in trouble at a later date.
Ghosts are not judge, jury and executioner. They understand that authors exaggerate, or even just confuse a sequence of events. Authors shouldn’t be surprised if a ghostwriter questions them closely on key parts of a story. It is not hostile, or accusatory, but simply for clarification. If the ghost’s instinct tells them it might not pass the newspaper headline test, they will want to check and double-check the facts.
None of this is to say that we ghosts can’t be creative with uncontroversial elements. It would make a very dull story indeed if we presented the entire story in language not far off what a lawyer might relate in court. Thus, we will let the occasional slight exaggeration ride, since they can be vital for a good narrative. It’s all a question of judgement, which is something an experienced ghost will fully understand and will help an author with in order to find the right, un-headlineworthy, balance.
Teena Lyons also writes regular blogs on her website www.professionalghost.com